MOSUL // ISIL militants on Wednesday blew up the Grand Al Nuri mosque of Mosul and its famous leaning minaret, Iraq’s military said as Iraqi forces seeking to expel the group from the city closed in on the site.
It was from this medieval mosque three years ago that the militants’ leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared a self-styled “caliphate” spanning parts of Syria and Iraq.
“Blowing up the Al Hadba minaret and the Al Nuri mosque amounts to an official acknowledgement of defeat,” Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi said in a brief comment on his website.
The Iraqis called the 45-metre leaning minaret Al Hadba, or “the hunchback”. Baghdadi’s black flag had flown over it since June 2014.
ISIL’s Amaq news agency accused American aircraft of destroying the mosque, a claim swiftly denied by the US-led coalition fighting the militant group.
“We did not strike in that area,” coalition spokesman US Air Force Colonel John Dorrian said.
“The responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of ISIS,” US Army Major General Joseph Martin, commander of the coalition’s ground component, said.
The media office for Iraq’s military distributed a picture taken from the air that appeared to show the mosque and minaret largely flattened and reduced to rubble among the small houses of the Old City, the historic district where the militants are under siege.
A video seen on social media showed the minaret collapsing vertically in a belch of sand and dust, as a woman lamented in the background, “The minaret, the minaret, the minaret.”
The mosque was destroyed as Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) units, which have been battling their way through Mosul’s Old City, got within 50 metres of it, according to the Iraqi military.
An Iraqi military spokesman said the explosion took place at 9.35pm local time.
“This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organisation must be annihilated,” said Maj Gen Martin.
Iraqi forces said earlier on Wednesday that they had started a push toward the mosque.
‘’This will not prevent us from removing them, no, killing them not removing them, inside the Old City,’’ Lt Gen Abdul Ghani Al Assadi, senior CTS commander in Mosul, said in a video posted over a messaging app.
The forces on Tuesday had encircled the extremist group’s stronghold in the Old City, the last district under ISIL control in Mosul.
Baghdadi proclaimed himself “caliph”, or ruler of all Muslims, from the mosque’s pulpit on July 4, 2014, after the insurgents overran vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.
His speech from the mosque was the first time he revealed himself to the world, and the footage broadcast then is to this day the only video recording of him as “caliph”.